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Welcoming the year of the water dragon

The Pretoria Chinese School joins ISASA.

A special school assembly to usher in the Chinese new year, the year of the water dragon, enabled a brand new ISASA member to reflect on its history and achievements.

The arrival of the Chinese in South Africa dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when they arrived as part of the wider global Chinese diaspora.1 Since that time, Chinese citizens of this country have become indelibly part of the evolution of a culturally and racially diverse 21st century South Africa.

In 1934, the Young Chinese Cultural League and the Chinese community of Pretoria started a small and unassuming primary school – the Pretoria Chinese School (PCS) – in the city. Today, this new ISASA member, offering schooling right up to matric, is widely recognised for its disciplined attitude to academic excellence, and for preserving and celebrating important aspects of Chinese culture.

A growing reputation for multicultural excellence

Principal Lisette Noonan came to love and understand this unique school during her first five years of teaching there. By January 2011, she had been promoted to deputy principal, and later in the year took up the reins as principal. Today, she’s justifiably proud of the school’s legacy and reputation. “In the early 1930s,” she recounts, “the Young Chinese Cultural League was understandably anxious to preserve what they could of their heritage, as they encountered growing racism and discriminatory government policies in their new home. The land and buildings on which the school was located was purchased in the name of the Chinese Consulate, as Chinese immigrants were denied South African citizenship and were not allowed to hold titles to property. From the start, we wanted our own identity and were determined to remain proudly independent.”

Later, the end of the apartheid era heralded more changes for the Chinese community in Pretoria. When government schools were obliged to open their doors to the entire population, there was a temporary drop in numbers at the PCS as parents explored other education possibilities. “In 1991,” says Noonan, “the Chinese school board therefore decided to expand the small primary school to include high school students so that the Chinese language, culture and education experience could be extended to all who wished to embrace it. Interestingly, this resulted in an influx of children from immigrant communities hailing from as far afield as Poland, Russia, Korea, Taiwan, Portugal and, of course, the People’s Republic of China. They had all heard about the Pretoria Chinese School’s disciplined ways and good results.”

Soon the Boom Street property was sold due to limited space for development, and the proceeds used to acquire a more suitable 3.48 hectare property in Wingate Park. In 1993, the close-knit Pretoria Chinese community rallied around the school yet again, raising R 2.7 million to build new classroom blocks, a computer centre and science laboratory. Today, believes Noonan, it is the only school in South Africa that teaches Traditional Script Mandarin full time on a daily basis from Grade R to Grade 12 to all its pupils, offering Saturday morning classes to adults.

Mandarin is mandatory The compulsory study of Mandarin is integral to the school’s mission, says Noonan, and is allied to its commitment to offer excellent education of international quality. She elaborates on the school’s fascinating language policy: “Chinese culture is the oldest, continuously practised literate culture in the world, practised in a clearly identifiable way for the last 6 000 years. This ancient culture has developed deep wisdom, which is of practical value in daily life and has the added advantage of contributing to the disciplining and broadening of the mind.”

One might think that Mandarin would pose significant learning challenges for non-Chinese students. Noonan is quick to brush this misconception aside. “Mandarin is mandatory here, but there is plenty of expert teaching and support. It’s not just a subject, but a vehicle through which Chinese culture and values find expression. We are happy that these values – like respect for one’s elders, discipline and humility – are part of our ethos.”

By 2000, the PCS was becoming aware of a growing new perception. “We realised that parents associated the ISASA brand with quality, and we were receiving increasing queries asking why we weren’t part of that brand,” remembers Noonan. The PCS board duly started a process of investigation to learn just exactly what ISASA was all about.

Academic excellence flourishes against backdrop of growing Chinese influence

In the meantime, diversity at the school continued to flourish. “Today, we have staff members from many cultural groups in South Africa. Our student body includes children from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola and Hong Kong, and our numbers have swelled this year from 375 pupils to 420. When a family was forced to flee the troubles in Syria earlier this year, we gladly took in their son. Like many parents, they had heard about the high quality of teaching and learning here, and the broad curriculum on offer.”

Current global economic conditions also persuade parents to send their children to the PCS, says Noonan. “We cannot ignore the growing significance of China as an economic player. As ties between South African and Chinese companies grow, and families are seconded to China for work purposes, they send their children to us for preparation. This works the other way around too, of course. Parents here from China on temporary work-related stays are only too happy to know their children are receiving a relevant education.

“We also follow the classical method of teaching Modern Script Mandarin only after our students have been steeped in the traditional language. This is a distinct advantage to students seeking possible careers in diplomacy, for example, as there is a shortage of qualified and properly trained Mandarin-to-English translators in mainland China and in this country. Furthermore, China is obliged by law to supply fully bilingual flight attendants on all Air China International planes.”

Students arriving at the PCS from foreign climes will not find themselves having to adjust alone. The PCS has an intensive English remedial support programme on hand. Whilst they acquire fluency, their classmates are involved each afternoon in a comprehensive co-curricular programme that includes academic support lessons and homework support classes, as well as cultural clubs and sports activities. The PCS has also garnered a reputation for intensive academic application. “You will not find more than 22 children in any of our classes, so we can promise a fair measure of individual attention,” asserts Noonan. “We also do not offer the subject maths literacy in Grade 10. The school allows students that have not coped with the Grade 10 syllabus to drop to maths literacy in Grade 11. We believe we have the staff expertise to enable each student to master higher grade maths, and our parents are willing to pay for that expertise.”

ISASA regional director worth his weight in gold

By the time the PCS had completed its exhaustive study into the merits of joining ISASA, Noonan was principal, and brought some additional information to the table. “I was of the firm opinion that organisations like the National Professional Teachers’ Association of South Africa (NAPTOSA) were not the right home for an independent school with specialised needs like the PCS. We needed a proactive support base to assist us with training, and to keep us abreast of the ongoing changes in the education legislative sphere as they impact on private schools.”

Realising an additional need to forge relationships with other independent schools, the PCS decided to shift to a three-term schedule. “Now that our holidays were aligned with other independent schools, we were at last in a position to attend conferences and training sessions, and network with other independent schools at events like subject cluster meetings.”

Information in hand, and with the support of the PCS board, Noonan then made contact with Theo Buccoli, one of ISASA’s regional directors. It’s his job – and the job of his colleagues in other provinces – to support, inform and assist member schools with queries and challenges. He’s also on hand to assist prospective members through the application process. Without him, says Noonan, things would have been considerably more stressful.

“Buccoli was our guide and calmly steered us through the process of joining ISASA, which took about six months. We started by taking an in-depth look at the school itself, and confirming the state of our physical resources. We did this with the additional support of Vernon Harmse, principal at ISASA member Midstream College Primary School. As he had already been through the site-check process, he was kind enough to explain a great deal to us.”

Then it was time to turn to statistics, figures, programmes and policies, says Noonan. “Detailed facts about our school were required to complete the application form. At no time did Buccoli make us feel as though we were being audited or inspected. He was simply marvellous, explaining to us in detail the need to adopt ISASA’s code of ethical practice and other key policies.”

ISASA has plenty to offer its members

It was with a sense of relief and achievement, says Noonan, that she received on behalf of the PCS, its ISASA certificate of membership in January this year. These feelings are confirmed every time she learns something new about the benefits of being an ISASA member. “We appreciate the opportunity to be able to advertise vacant teaching positions on the ISASA website. Prospective parents can also read about us there, and even our more seasoned families tell us that they feel the ISASA brand is a quality-control stamp. We’re also pleased to be new members of the South Africa Bursars of Independent Schools Association (SABISA), the South African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA) and the Independent Schools’ Marketing Association (ISMA).”

Noonan says it’s comforting to know that she can get advice from ISASA’s Policy and Government Relations Unit whenever she needs to. “We’ve been particularly interested in the impact of the Consumer Protection Act on our school, and it’s good to be able to give parents accurate and up-to-date information.”

Noonan believes that joining ISASA has placed the PCS in the ideal position to develop exciting new projects. “We also feel assured that joining the ISASA family enables us to promote our ethos of discipline, respect and humility. These values are what we are all about.”


1. See, for example, Harris, K.L. (2010) ‘En route to ‘Dignity Day’: the South African Chinese and historical commemorations.’ Historia, 55 (2). Available at:

Category: Winter 2012

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